Every now and then, especially after a heavy rain, homeless men and women make their way into the 1,600-square-foot store in the Hudson Square shopping center. They know somebody will give them dry clothes and even let them change in the restroom.
The generosity comes without strings. And while most visitors are grateful, some ignore the sign on one wall: Thou Shalt Not Steal.
Sandra Mooney, a retired business executive who manages the St. Martin's Episcopal Church thrift shop, just sighs.
"This isn't treasure,'' she says. "Bless them and send them on their way.''
Mooney's fellow volunteers often accept less than the asking price for clothing or appliances or hundreds of other donated items because what's really important here is helping the poor — or as longtime volunteer Barbara Cyr says, "serving God.''
Mooney, 70, muses that such benevolence might have contributed to her unpleasant duty of closing the store after 21 years. Of course she knows better. Proceeds have dwindled much like the number of families in the congregation that meets further north up U.S. 19. Most of the volunteers are in their 80s and 90s, including some with severe dementia who still show up to sort hangers or use a magnifying glass to put price tags on items. Sometimes that means extra work for others, but the thrift shop is sort of a last refuge of familiarity for these longtime volunteers.
"And I would never even consider taking this away from them,'' Mooney says.
The thrift shop has helped the church support 24 charities in Pasco County and send clothing to destitute people in places like Haiti and Honduras. It collected truckloads of clothing for Hurricane Katrina victims. Every week, the church delivers a 32-gallon bag of clothes for poor kids at Hudson Elementary School.
But last August, the new priest at St. Martin's leaned on Mooney to direct a project everyone knew had to come sooner or later. The Rev. Walcott Hunter, like so many pastors challenged by a shrinking, aging congregation, looked at the numbers generated at the store. In many months, every dime went to the $2,700 rent and associated bills.
Meanwhile, no less than seven other thrift stores opened within a 10-mile area. The Rev. Hunter asked Mooney to take a mission: close the Hudson Square store and build a viable alternative.
She was a logical choice except for one thing: She didn't want to do it. In 15 years as a member of the congregation, she had hesitated to get too involved because she and husband Jack always planned trips around the country to visit family.
They had met more than 20 years ago when Sandra, a headhunter for a software company in Silicon Valley, recruited him for an engineering job. Later they realized they shared a love for sailing, got married and made plans to sail around the world. They left the San Francisco bay area in 1993 and gradually made their way to Central America and eventually to Fort Lauderdale where Sandra had a sister. In the next year, they searched for a permanent home and wound up in Hudson. After seven years aboard a 32-foot Challenger sailboat named Utopia, they now had a house but still took cruises to the Bahamas and elsewhere.
When home, they enjoyed the spirit they found at St. Martin's. "People cared for each other there,'' Mooney said. "This service to others attitude was inspiring.''
Running the thrift shop came with an immediate, unexpected challenge. The woman who had handled all the volunteer scheduling, the most difficult of all the jobs, died. Mooney had to assume the role. She also learned quickly that just because she had run businesses, this would be totally different.
"When I was in the workforce, I set the rules,'' she said. "Here it's whatever these 85-year-old people want to do because they're going to do it anyway. But they all come here for one reason: They want to help people. It has been such a humbling experience for me to be with them.''
Some of them feel melancholy about closing the store, but Mooney is excited about what's next. The store will stay open Monday through Saturday until the lease runs out May 9. After that, the church will raise money for charities by hosting what Mooney calls "family festivals.'' They will be scheduled for the second Thursday-Friday-Saturday block of each month, with the first set for June 7. Mooney envisions a fresh produce market, yard sale, music and special treats for children.
For 21 years, people have donated items for St. Martin's, dropping them off at the store or calling for pickup. Starting April 19, the repository will be the church from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Mooney wants to start early to get people used to the change.
Meanwhile, most everything at the store is half-price.
"It's a true going out of business sale,'' she says, standing in an attractive shirt she bought off the rack for $2.
"I never knew about thrift shops until I started here,'' she says. "I was a Nordstrom girl.''